Mind Music

Man can play back four symphonies in his head… At once!

Man can play back four symphonies in his head At once

Bob Milne is one of the best ragtime piano players in the world, but his talents go further than that – right into the land of amazing. Bob’s brain works a little differently to the rest of us, as he can compartmentalise various functions, which allows him to play complex piano pieces while carrying on a conversation. But when Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Betterman decided to investigate Bob’s incredible ability, she discovered something even more amazing: he can ‘play back’ four different symphonies at the same time in his head, and what’s more, he says he ‘sees’ these symphonies being played in his head in three dimensions, and can fly around within this audio-visual space and listen to the music change from different perspectives. Here’s an NPR Radiolab feature on Bob Milne and Kerstin Betterman from a couple of years ago that tells the story…


Audio here.

Awesome. I can carry on a conversation and play one of my songs at the same time. This is something that comes in handy when you are leading a band.

I can also listen to conversations of audience members if they happen to be talking while I’m playing. This should not be surprising as playing well in a band is about listening to what everyone else is doing and then very quickly adjusting or signaling them to adjust.

I can play back a symphony or other song in my head, mostly, if I hear it enough, but unlike the conductor in the MRI test, only one at a time. Most people can do this, right? Imagine Bohemian Rapsody from start to finish in your mind’s ear, for example. Many people probably can.

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